21 May 2024

National MP David MacLeod may face police probe over undeclared donations - law professor

4:28 pm on 21 May 2024

National's MP David MacLeod could yet face more serious consequences over failing to declare donations worth almost $180,000, a law professor says.

The MP for New Plymouth failed to declare 19 candidate donations worth $178,000 to the Electoral Commission, in what he says was an inadvertent error.

The Prime Minister and National leader Christopher Luxon has stood MacLeod down immediately from his roles on both the Environment and Finance select committees.

Otago University law professor Andrew Geddis says the matter is likely to be referred to the police by the Electoral Commission and MacLeod could potentially be charged with committing a corrupt or illegal practice.

"The Electoral Commission has a statutory obligation to report suspected breaches to the police unless the Electoral Commission believes the matter is so inconsequential there is no public interest in doing so."

But Geddis doesn't think that amount of money could be ignored and suspects the "Commission's duty will be to report this to the Police who will then have to decide whether to prosecute".

MacLeod's original return to the Electoral Commission declared $29,268 in donations and $22,826.51 in expenses. His amended return reports $207,662 in donations and no change to the expenses reported.

The Electoral Commission has told RNZ it is looking into the matter.

"If in our view there has been a breach of the Electoral Act, we can refer the matter to the police. It would be up to the police to decide whether to investigate or take further action," a spokesperson said.

A donor who backed Macleod's election campaign is disappointed he failed to declare most of the money he received.

New Plymouth businessman Phil Brown donated $10,000.

"The circumstances of this is a little disappointing - I think the donors have made that comment to David.

"I fully support David, he's clearly made a mistake - an unintentional mistake I think."

Brown told RNZ he was contacted by MacLeod on Saturday and told of the error with his donations.

MacLeod says he thought the return he was filing was for the 2023 year only.

That meant he left out the 18 donations he'd received, totalling $168,335, when he became a candidate in 2022.

However, he also failed to disclose a $10,000 donation in 2023.

Asked how he'd missed such a large donation in 2023, the year he knew he was filing a return for, MacLeod said he made a mistake and couldn't explain how he'd missed it.

MacLeod says he never tried to hide any of the candidate donations he failed to declare.

"I had always fully intended for these donations to be made public. I wrote to all the donors indicating that any donations over $1500 would be made public," he said.

He said he had 44 donors to his campaign, he missed declaring one $10,000 donation in 2023 and mistakenly believed he didn't need to declare another 18 that were received in 2022.

"I made a mistake with the return and I'm trying to be upfront and correct the situation.

"I am very disappointed in myself. I apologise to my constituents, the National Party, and the New Zealand public."

MacLeod said the decision to remove him from his select committee roles was an appropriate response.

As chair of the Environment Select Committee MacLeod will lose just shy of $16,000 from his salary.

A comeback up to the MP - Luxon

Christopher Luxon

Christopher Luxon Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Luxon says it's entirely appropriate given MacLeod "got it wrong".

"He takes full responsibility for it and good on him, he's been upfront about it and contrite about it. He feels terrible about it and I get it he's disappointed in himself and frankly I'm disappointed in him as well."

In terms of a path back, Luxon says that's up to Macleod.

"It's about him demonstrating he's a great member of the team - he is a valued member of our team - but he has work to do and the way to do that is to show us he's a good local MP, championing for his people in New Plymouth, and doing everything we ask of him in Parliament."

MacLeod said he received information from the party about how to file electoral returns and signing and submitting an incorrect return was all on him.

It was the National Party that discovered the error last week when it was consolidating its annual accounts, which led to MacLeod conducting a full audit of his 2022 and 2023 expenses and donations.

Opposition leader Chris Hipkins told media everyone is human and mistakes are made but in this case the error seemed "pretty big".

He said he couldn't imagine anyone in his caucus receiving and failing to declare more than $100,000 in donations, because it's not the sort of money Labour gets donated.

"We'd be celebrating that quite loudly," he said.